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Let’s Talk About STDs

Can you tell me about the most common STDs and treatment available?

Q. I recently read that there are over 12 sexually transmitted diseases that are incurable. Can you tell me about the most common STDs and treatment available? What’s a good source of reliable information about this group of diseases?

A. Your numbers may be a little off because their are many different preferences of sexual activity. As a result, other types of viruses that are not commonly known as sexually transmitted have been spread through this activity (Hepatitis A, cytomegalovirus, others). However, many curable STDs are equally devastating to someone’s health if left untreated.

But let’s take you last question first: Where to find reliable information? Sexual health questions can be embarrassing or uncomfortable for people to ask. As a result, they often ignore the problem or seek answers from trusted friends, the Web or a book. While this may be a good start, you shouldn’t rely on those sources alone. Make an appointment with a compassionate and non-judgmental physician. If a sexually transmitted illness is found, then you must contact your sexual partners so they can get checked out to prevent health complications for themselves and their partners.

Your physician might also recommend vaccinations that are very effective for preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted viruses such as hepatitis B and A. Additionally, females aged 9 to 26 should talk to their doctors about a vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been linked to cervical cancer.

And now, for your STD primer. If you have ever had sex with a person infected with an STD, you may be at risk for developing that same illness. It’s extremely important to know your partner’s sexual history, understand your own risks, practice safe sex, and know it’s OK to say no to sex until you both have a better knowledge of each other’s health status.

Although some of these infections can be transmitted through intercourse, others may be acquired through anal and oral sex, as well as via skin to skin contact. Since several STDs may produce little or no symptoms, many individuals aren’t aware they’ve been infected.

Sexually transmitted infections are caused by bacteria, parasites (scabies, lice), protozoa (trichomoniasis) or viruses. Treatment for an STD depends on the cause. Antibiotics are often effective at eradicating diseases caused by bacteria or protozoa, and anti-parasitic medications are used against infestations of scabies or pubic lice. STDs caused by viral infections cannot be cured, though the symptoms usually can be minimized with medication.

Here’s a summary of some common sexually transmitted illnesses.

Chancroid is a very contagious bacterial illness that’s transmitted through skin contact with an open sore or its pus. Symptoms—when there are any—include ulcers or sores in the genital region, and painful and swollen lymph glands in the area of the groin. Symptoms usually occur within 10 days of exposure.

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection commonly transmitted through vaginal or anal sex, and albeit rarely, through oral sex. Although generally there are no obvious symptoms, those infected may experience cervicitis (inflammation of the cervix), pain with urination, or a slight discharge. Symptoms usually appear within three weeks of infection. Potentially serious complications of untreated Chlamydia include pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and ectopic pregnancy.

Gonnorhea is a bacterium found in moist areas of the body such as the vagina, penis, eyes, throat and rectum. Contact with any of those infected areas may spread the disease. Women often do not have initial symptoms, but common complaints are burning with urination and vaginal discharge. Four out of five men will have symptoms such as yellow pus-like discharge from the penis, blood in the urine and a burning with urination.

Genital herpes is caused by a herpes simplex virus. HSV-1 tends to cause fever blisters outside the mouth, around the lips, cheeks, chin and in nostrils; HSV-2, on the other hand, usually affects the genital region. Read my article “Conquering Canker Sores” for a more in-depth discussion.). Genital herpes is spread through contact with a genital sore caused most commonly by HSV-2, but may also occur through oral-genital or genital-genital contact with a person infected with HSV-1. Symptoms of infection can be mild or attributed to another condition, but painful ulcers lasting for several weeks may also occur. There is no cure and outbreaks can reoccur for many years.

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is transmitted from an infected person through their blood, sexual fluids or breast milk, as well as through shared needles. Over time this virus can weaken a person’s immune system to the point where many infections occur. At this stage the virus may have progressed to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Needless to say, this virus has the potential to cause serious illness and death.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is spread through skin-to-skin contact and cannot be entirely prevented through condom use. HPV is estimated to cause up to one-third of all new cases of STDs in this country. Even though there are little or no outward symptoms, certain types of HPV have the potential to cause cervical cancer in women. Fortunately, through regular pap screening, the majority of these cancers can be prevented.

When it comes to symptoms, it’s hard to generalize given all the different STDs out there. However, there are clues that may alert you to the presence of an infection, such as:

For more detaile information on the STDs discussed and many others, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

Read More From Dr. Rob:

Seeing Red: Finding Blood Where It Shouldn’t Be
Do I Have Herpes?
Sexual Dysfunction: Is Age the Culprit?
Feeling Cold and Tired
What's a Pinched Nerve?
Find all articles by Dr. Rob


©2008, Dr Rob

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